While the pesh merga attacked ISIS from the north and the east, the Iraqi military was approaching from the south. The job of the battalion moving toward Bashiqa was to shore up the eastern front and extend a cordon around Mosul. The Iraqis’ next moves would depend in part on the Kurds’ success. For the moment, in other words, the progress of the central conflict in the Middle East had come down to this unlikely troop.
The first ISIS mortar fire arrived in the midmorning with whizzes and thuds. It was off target, and the soldiers regarded the dirt plumes with indifference. The first incoming bullets soon followed and were cause for more alarm. They flew from a rambling, two-story cinder-block house on the crest of a slope.
The gunfire split the column in two. The back portion halted behind a berm about 12 feet high and about 300 yards downslope from the house. A few soldiers climbed up the dirt and took aim. The rest got out of their vehicles and pulled out phones and cigarettes. Group photos and selfies were snapped.
“Let’s use the cannon,” a commander suggested. A pickup mounted with an anti-tank gun pulled in front of the berm. The first shot fell short; a second hit the house, leaving a disappointingly small hole in the facade.
When there was a pause in the fighting, a group of trucks emerged from behind the berm, raced up the track and cut right onto a hillock that overlooked the house. Some pesh merga got out and gathered. They presented a clear target for snipers and artillery, but they didn’t appear to mind. They chatted, laughed, smoked, checked their phones. More group photos, more selfies. Even after two mortar rounds landed in quick succession on either side of them — a sign that a spotter was nearby, bracketing their position — they remained unhurried. Eventually they got back into their vehicles and, under fire from the house, headed straight for it. The ISIS fighters had built their own berm beside the house’s exterior wall. The Kurdish soldiers backed their trucks up to it, and one of them opened up on the house with a 50-caliber machine gun. Others peeked over the berm, taking the occasional potshot. One walked up to a gap in the dirt and, with neither cover nor helmet, a cigarette dangling from his lips, emptied a magazine.
The 50-caliber jammed. The fighting subsided again. The soldiers reclined at the base of the berm. Out came the phones. More selfies. Texting. A man called his mother. Another watched a video of a firefight taking place on some other front around Mosul. None of them seemed eager to storm the house.
“I’m deaf from that cannon!” a soldier said.
“Did you take any photos of it being shot?” another asked him.
The gunner got into an argument with another soldier over whose responsibility it had been to make sure the 50-cal was working properly that morning. “You were supposed to fix it!”
“It’s not my job!”
“It’s not as if you had to build an airplane. It’s simple.”
“You came all the way to the front in a taxi, and now all you do is talk. You just talk.”
Another burst of gunfire from the house, and a soldier climbed behind the anti-tank gun.
“Come help me,” he instructed a colleague.
“I don’t know how.”
“If you don’t get up here and help me, I’m going to do everything that’s bad to you.”
The gun was loaded and fired. The backblast shattered a pickup’s windshield.
“Bazan, where are your cigarettes?”
Bazan ran to a truck and returned with a pack of cigarettes.
“Who wants a cigarette?”
The group lit up.
“Everyone here talks like a man,” a soldier said, “but no one fights like one.”
There was a note of false modesty in this quip. In fact, for centuries Kurds have fought famously, taking on all comers: Persians, Ottomans, Arabs, British and the various governments of Iraq. A diffuse institution — “more an attitude than an army,” as one Kurd put it — the pesh merga today contain anywhere from several tens of thousands to about a hundred thousand fighters, depending on who’s counting and how proud he’s feeling. Many are volunteers. Only some of them have training that would warrant the name in a major military. The one thing they all share is that they are willing to die for their land. If their tactics are negligible — and sometimes as suicidal as those of the jihadists — their bravery is not.
The pesh merga are commanded by Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government. When ISIS overran Mosul in June 2014, Barzani offered the help of his army to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who snubbed him. It was assumed Maliki worried that Barzani intended to annex whatever land his troops took. Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, may have delayed the invasion of Mosul for the same reason. But earlier this year, Barzani, Abadi and the international coalition arrived at an agreement that called for the Kurdish forces to halt their advance at Bashiqa.
About six miles from the eastern outskirts of Mosul, Bashiqa was inhabited largely by Christians, Kurds and members of the Yazidi minority, most of whom fled when ISIS arrived. The city presented an added political wrinkle in the war because it is in the “disputed territories,” land claimed by both Iraq and the Kurdish regional government. Certain Kurds, mainly older ones, consider Mosul theirs, too. Partly for this reason — but more because they’re accustomed to fighting against the Iraqi military, not alongside it — some pesh merga worried they would be attacked, or at least mistreated, by Iraqi soldiers when the two forces met on the front lines. Speculation about a sequel war between Kurdistan and Iraq was (and still is) commonplace. But so far relations were cordial, and the Iraqi military, knowing it would have its hands full with the close combat in Mosul’s ancient streets, was content to leave the Bashiqa campaign to the Kurds.
“This war is very different for us Kurds,” Barzani’s brother, Sihad Barzani, explained several days after the campaign began. “This is the first time we’ve seen airstrikes that we’re not afraid of. This is the first time the Iraqi Army is not trying to kill us — and we’re not trying to kill them. We hope it stays this way.” He was in a large abandoned house that the pesh merga had commandeered and turned into a field headquarters on the periphery of Bashiqa. The march had brought them to the limits of the city. They had not yet entered, but they had it surrounded. “ISIS has no escape. They will have to die now.”
The Barzanis are de facto royalty in Kurdistan. Massoud and Sihad’s father, Mustafa, the patriarch of the incipient Iraqi Kurdish republic, led its revolution against Iraq until his death in 1979. It’s common to meet pesh merga with tattoos of Mustafa’s portrait. As Sihad stepped from the house, a young soldier lifted up his shirt to reveal the face of Mustafa, with his thick black mustache and checkered red head scarf, sprawled across his back. Sihad looked on approvingly. Asked how many of his own family members were fighting ISIS, he gestured at the soldiers gathered in the courtyard and said, “They’re all my family.”
The Tigris River valley is dotted with villages and olive groves. The ISIS fighters inhabiting it were experienced and disciplined. What they lacked in munitions they made up for in patience, as the pesh merga had learned. Some Kurds had developed a reluctant respect for their adversary. “They fight as if they want to die,” it was often said.